tv Tavis Smiley WHUT April 4, 2012 8:00am-8:30am EDT
tavis: good evening. from los angeles, i am tavis smiley. tonit, a conversation with the victorious lobbyists jack abramoff, a man who epitomized power. he is critic of the system that he called legalized bribery. despite his own high profile case and a prison sentence, he believes the system is not getting any better. the book about his infamous rise and fall was called " capital punishment be " we are glad you joined us with jack abramoff now. >> every community has a martin luther king boulevard. it's the cornerstone we all know. it's not just a street or boulevard, but a place where walmart stands together with your community to make every
day better. >> and by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you. [captioning made possible by kcet public television] tavis: jack abramoff was one of the most well-known lobbyists, creating a system that gives favors for political clout. in 2004, his high-stakes world came crashing down. the book about his ordeal and the shady system he says still exists in washington. the hard truth about how corruption, america's most notorious lobbyists. jack abramoff, it's an honor.
by that, i mean i and appreciate you sitting down to take responsibility for what you did and what the system is still doing even as we speak. let me start by asking what appears to me to be an obvious question. why the american people should believe you or why we should take you seriously? why any of this should be given any real regard. >> at the end of the day, unfortunately, i was behind the curtain closed doors in washington that most americans don't get to be behind. i regret that i was behind them. i saw things in those rooms and led the kings in those rooms that i regret and i regret is gone through this country. i had already come to the epiphany that what i had already done was wrong, the system was
wrong, and they came to believe that i had to speak out and talk about it because so much of what was wrong end is wrong is still happening. nobody is doing anything about it. we will hoping to get people angry enough that they go do something hot. tavis: behind getting caught, what is the epiphany behind this feeling of remorse? >> when my scandal started, i was probably at the top of my game. i had the largest single practice in washington. an article came attacking me and my practice. the initial response to that article, it was kind of humorous. it is posted on the fir website, we exchanged leadership had determined that the picture wasn't necessarily
-- we thought it would blow over and washington is add. -- a.d.d. tavis: you thought to underscore it because it showed how good you were at what you did. >> right. i did not really think much about it, it could of been a lot worse. the attacks continued, senator mccain got involved in attacking me. it did not seem like it was going to go away immediately. it kept going and going, but my attitude shifted to something that was unfortunately typical, why are they picking on me? what am i doing that was different from anybody else. maybe i did more of it, but ultimately, it was the same stuff. that is not a positive attitude, it was a victim attitude. i finally sat down and started
to read a lot of the 850,000 the mail that i had sent over the course of my career. instead of being defensive and say that everybody is out to get me, am i missing something here? i was missing a lot. it was a process for me. it happened over months and before i went to prison. going to prison as a horrible thing. when i landed there, i had come to realize that all of it is ashamed.atbad, i was i wanted to go away and hide, but in prison, walking and thinking about it, i decided that i knew too much that would
be useful. and even though i would be sticking my head back out, i would do it anyway. tavis: you said things that i wanted to unpack. he said that people had been lacking in your head again. -- whacking at your head again. >> people, for the most part, realize that i am sincere in my regrets and wanting to do something to change my life and make a difference. some people out there basically say, how can we trust you? at the end of the day, and nobody know what is in my heart god. -- other than god. they can only see what i do. the other reaction is from the system itself, from k-street and capitol hill.
they don't want me talking about these things that take place inside. somehow, it disqualifies me from speaking about crimes i committed. and some people have been amazing, they contacted me and said, please, keep going. your thrust into a position where people are listening to you. tavis: you mentioned god a moment ago, he said that only he knows what is in your heart in your right about that. none of us are perfect, but even before getting his book, i wondered -- i started to read about you and have the cut you were in your faith, and how you dvd% of your money to charity. i kept trying to get a better
understanding of his balance of good and evil that is a new, b, and the rest of us. and the good that you were doing with your earnings, it was coming from such a bad place. and the evil was overtaking the good, you spent more than four years in jail. you know kevin spacey who was on this program to promote the scene of jack. we had a conversation really about who jack was. are you trying to soft sell or spin jack abramoff as a modern day robin hood? >> i think maybe in his own mind, he was unorthodox robin hood. that is a very interesting point, when i started doing research for their role, let's face it, abramoff was painted as the devil incarnate.
the most evil and greedy man that ever walked the face of the earth. when i tried to find out what he did with all the money, was there a swiss chalet, boat, jet, family vacation? no, he wasn't even paying his mortgage. he was giving away a lot of the money in trying to do things that justified some of the things that they did that were not, as they will say, kosher. tavis: were you an orthodox robin hood? >> it's hard for me to look back to say i am any kind of positive character. i did things that were wrong, and i am somebody that may be wanted to, like all folks that have religious police, i am a sinner. i am someone that trek over where i was going. my own up to the things that i
did that were wrong. it being somebody that wants to be religious doesn't make me perfect or any better than anyone else. maybe it makes me better than i would have been. >> of the charity, the philanthropy, wasn't trying to -- was it trying to compensate for the evil you were doing? what was driving the charity? >> i have been doing charity my whole life because i felt it was right, ever since i was a little boy. god gave me resources to do things. i did not think i was doing evil, and that as part of the problem. in my religion, it is better to know you're doing wrong and try
to make it better than to not know you are doing wrong. if you wind up one degree off, you might crash somewhere. because i believed in, having nothing but victories for them. however the victories were obtained, making them a lot of money and giving it all away. that probably reinforced my mind that everything was just fine. it included me from seeing the forest through the trees. it required me being in the gutter, bleeding, before i took a look with truth as to what i was. i was not acting, but at least that was honest about it. tavis: since you referenced your faith, and since spacey made
the joke it wasn't kosher, let me follow with this question. i talked with friends over the years that happen to be jewish. i know something about this because i am african-american and i know how i feel when watching the news and they see a story about to come up after the break for the rtc a story about somebody that did something heinous in los angeles. i'm hoping it's not a black kid or black man. i get tired of that collective guilt because one of ours has done something we are not so proud of. i am not justifying it, i just love my people so much and i have to take the dog. i wonder whether or not there is any guilt that you have felt over letting your people down. you are an embarrassment to jews
and given what you did in washington, bernie madoff is an embarrassment to jews. >> you hit it on the head. it is a constant feeling that i can't do anything about. you can't un-ring the bell. my image that i built and others built for me was extremely negative. because i was orthodox jewish, cleaned the that i clock of a linebacker. it was horribly embarrassing for me. i should say that the communities i live in both youhe -- they have been nothing but
unbelievably supportive of me and my family. my mother as well. i've been there has been an incredible outpouring of support for us, more than i deserve, my family deserves it. no matter what that support is, there is the realization that i have committed because of who i was and what i became, within hebrews, it is basically a desecration of god's name. if people see a religious person involved, who in that world, unfortunately was something that is hard for me to live down. tavis: you recall what they said about you with such clarity. i wonder whether or not that you felt, why are they picking on some portions of the media went too far and it was borderline anti-semitism?
>> i try not to view things through a prism of anti-semitism because people will use that as a knee-jerk reaction to any criticism of jews. i'd probably go the other way and ignored things that i heard. it is not to say it wasn't there, i just didn't hear it. i was so focused on what i did wrong that i didn't want to have mitigation coming in saying that i did this wrong, but look how they are treating me. there were things in the media that were outrageous, but not necessarily -- papers and louisiana, hurricane katrina. i was a good lobbyist. they say i took the money and got indian tribal clients that was not true. it did not really get to where i saw a credible people for other than that saying it was -- >>
one last thing about these days the conversation. the infamous picture of you in the hatch at the coat. he felt compelled to talk about that in the book. and maybe again, people make too much out of it. but it is a darth vader looking picture. >> it was january in washington, d.c., and it was raining. everywhere i went, the media was attacking me and they were physical. they were nasty and they would scream horrible things. on this day where i was pleading guilty to crimes, realizing i was setting myself on the path of the atlanta prison, i did not want to deal with that. i got up very early in the morning, i got there at 6:00 in the morning.
i didn't want to wake up my wife for anyone, so i grabbed the rain hat and a raincoat have left, put it on, marched into the court room alone. nobody bothered me. there are not windows and the court room. i've put on my hat and my coat and nobody said anything to me. my sartorialsed on splendor, i was focused on the fax that i had just led guilty to crimes in the court room. they started screaming, some of them who were screaming mafiosi. who where they talking to? i couldn't exactly take my hat and coat off. that became ubiquitous in every coverage. documents and not wanting to
wake the family. how do you talk to your kids about this and tell them that daddy is going to the big house? >> it was horrible. like my realization of where i -- in the realization of what was going to happen to me over time. he had a devastating impact on my family, my kids, my father and mother. it was a horrible experience for us. i thank god that like every man, i married of myself. she not only was there to support me and didn't abandon me, but she brought me up and brought the kids out. i am incredibly blessed and lucky to have her. we would basically try to be honest with the kids and tell them what was happening and what was going on. we figure they were going to
find out anyway because everything about me was in the mary -- media. int he course of all that, what was more important was to try to give our kids perspective. they have a good life and all of a sudden, the good life was gone. their father was being taken away from them and i didn't even know how long until i was imprisoned for 22 months. and so we would constantly try to refocus them. we would have friday night dinner at saturday lunch and dinner. once this started, we stop having guests because everybody was so despondent. we found out for certain i was going to have to go to prison. it was during hurricane katrina, actually. the kids were standing around this table as we were going to
begin our meal, and i was trying to think of what to say to them, how to get them a little bit bucked up. a paper had a picture of a father clutching his daughter with a look of terror on their face. one of the many families lose everything was like out. i said to the children, what is the matter? hall as the matter? our lives are over. how we are finished. i said, really. we have tough times coming, and our lives are going to be very different, but you see this fellow and his daughter? would you rather trade with them? they don't have a roof over their head or food in front of them. they don't even know where the rest of their family is.
and we were all crying about that, but i tried to make the point to them that no matter how bad it is for us, 90% of the world would trade places with us in an instant. even when i was in prison and a solitary confinement, 90% of the world said high will take that. maybe the perspective was more, but what we have every day is enough and is great, and we have to be grateful for it. >> and the story notwithstanding, that i appreciate you sharing, i would assume that there is this feeling that you have of wanting to spend every day, the rest of your life trying to redeem yourself in the eyes of her own children. if that is not the case, tell me. >> i never felt when they like
that because the kids and saw what we did with our money. we had seven kids in our house that were not their own home that needed a place to stay. they knew what we were about and what i was about. they knew i was in the political world, a big shot, but they knew i was not an evil person or that guy on tv. they made mistakes and it was something that i thought was doing the right thing. not necessarily good. i explained what i did that was wrong, why these things are wrong. most of the lessons have taken. maybe not every one of them. the kids can't stand it because a lot over the speeding the men. -- because i won't go over the speed limit. i was arrogant, and i felt that
these things don't apply to me. i am here for the greater goal. my kids got a graphic example of what happens when you behave like that. in terms of feeling to redeem myself or somehow explain to them, i guess i had such great kids that they never made me feel like i had to. tavis: 2 minutes left in this program tonight, and i'm glad i have another night to get into other stuff. like what is wrong with this system and how it ought to be fixed. but before we close the program tonight, in terms of setting up the conversation tomorrow night, why were you a lobbyist? what good, politically, did you think you were doing? >> i was a very political
animal, and i didn't want to run for office because i didn't want my private life spilled all over the paper. [laughter] didn't work. but i love politics, and i was involved from the time i was a very young man. and engaging in political combat, a lot of my clients were underdogs. i enjoyed being the establishment on their behalf, and i've never lost. i got that extra heady feeling for better or for worse. i realized in lobbying, i could do things that were interesting to me an end whole thought i could do good. i'm not sure it turned out at all like that. tavis: we will pick up tomorrow night where we left off, what he did right, what he did wrong,
who else is doing it and why the system was in such a way that he could be so successful. and what it is we can do to fix the system in washington. the democrats and republicans are guilty of this as we speak. a lot more talk tomorrow night. capital punishment, the hard truth about washington corruption. we'll continue this tomorrow night right here on pbs. i will be back. until next time, keep the faith. >> for more information on today's show, visit tavis smiley at pbs.org. tavis: hi, i'm tavis smiley. join me next time for a conversation with notorious lobbyist jack abramoff on efforts to reform lobbying.
we will see you then. >> every community has a martin luther king boulevard. it's the cornerstone we all know. it's not just a street or boulevard, but a place where walmart stands together with your community to make every day better. >> and by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you. >> be more.